The Tree of Words

By Alison Hawthorne Deming

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Brazilian Notebook: A Series Set in Brazil

May 25. São Paolo, last day, last post.

Detail, slave ship, Museu Afro Brasil.
Detail, slave ship, Museu Afro Brasil.
We visited two stunning museums here, each of which moved us deeply both for the substance of their collections and the brilliance of design qualities in the their exhibitions and installations. First, the Museu Afro Brasil, which so powerfully tells the story of cultural relationship between Brazil and Africa, of slavery and the African diaspora, of the syncretism in art and religion that have developed from the fifteenth century to the present. We felt the terrible kinship of this society with our own, seeing a reconstruction of a slave ship and woodcuts illustrating the heartless ferocity of the slavers, every inch of a ship’s deck covered with human woe. No comfort to see a contemporary photograph showing a policeman arresting four black youths suspected of being robbers, thick ropes laced around their necks tying them together as they were being taken out of a cane field. Racism is hidden and subtle here, we were told, by our museum guide who had been a student at Howard University. It was very meaningful, she said, to have a teacher who is black, to talk about how we deal with diversity in our country. It is rare to see black doctors or professors here, she said, though schools are now required to teach Afro-Brasilian history.

Dolls, Museu Afro Brasil.
Dolls, Museu Afro Brasil.

Imagine the power of hearing Cornelius Eady read from his song cycle “Brutal Imagination” within such a context, as he did later the next day at the Binational Center in São Paolo, the room alive with transcendent attention. We saw also handmade toys arranged in playful dioramas, cordel poetry pamphlets for sale, beaded and plumed carnival costumes, historical footage of capoeria (the ritualized dance form coming out of Brazilian slave culture and now joining the global menu of martial arts). We saw representations of African deities, Exú and Pomba Gira, male and female figures who serve like Hermes to mediate communication between humans and the transcendent. We learned of Carolina Maria de Jesus, who lived in a favela and devoted herself to helping the poor, writing Le Long Cri de Famine. And we learned that the national dish feijoada — black bean stew with side dishes of rice, roasted cassava flour, oranges, kale — traditionally eaten on Saturdays and now boasted at haute cuisine locales, originally was slave food made from bits of the pig discarded by the master. Snout, ears, tail. Transformed into a bean festival. Sadly, we somehow managed not to eat feijoada during our stay — traveling on Saturdays, wrong place, wrong time. One of countless reasons to return to this soulful place.

Poem in PortugueseThe second museum that blew our socks off was the Museum of the Portuguese Language. Admittedly we all thought it would be dull, but it turned out to be so stunning we wished for an analog back home devoted to the American language. The central metaphor of the museum is a sheet metal sculpture of “The Tree of Words” that fills a windowed elevator shaft. The Portuguese language as living organism incorporating Latin, indigenous, Arabic, African influences, as ancestral linguistic DNA. Words from Tupinambá, the first indigenous language the Portuguese encountered when they arrived on the Brazilian coast. The words had to do with animals, fruits, natural history. (There were more than 100 indigenous languages in Brazil, now mostly extinct.) Words for deities in Yoruba that came from the West coast of Africa. Words from Quicombo, Quimbundo, Umbundo that made the Brazilian Portuguese more “chanted,” a guide said. The Portuguese had sailed in 1498 to Calcutta. We saw a Japanese painting of the Portuguese arriving by galleon to Nagasaki in 1498. We saw a lithograph of the first representation of corn in Europe dated at 1563. Like winds tracing paths over the great globe of Earth, like birds on migration routes picking up and dropping seeds, words fly. Words are a cosmos. Words are a fingerprint. “Idiomaterna” was the word given to a film we viewed, “Mother Tongue.” The Earth is tender toward people who live here, said our guide. And the native language is so tender too with people who speak that language.

We ended the visit in the “Square of Words,” an installation in which words made of light flew around the dark ceiling and floor like birds on migration while we heard poems recited in Portuguese — Fernando Pessoa, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Gonçalves Dias, many more. Then the lights came on and we walked over an illumination of words, feeling the songs of this sensuous and soulful place as the very ground beneath of us.

FruitaFinally, we had the honor to meet many of Brazil’s great writers when we were invited to join their weekly gathering for tea and cakes at the Academia Paulista de Letras (forty members; lifetime appointment). We met the Brazilian Walt Disney — Mauricio de Sousa — whose business card is sky blue and shaped with little dog ears protruding ( We met the great Brazilian novelist Lygia Faguneles Telles, a grande dame of letters of the stature of Clarice Lispector. We met the poet Paulo Bomfim who wrote in “The Fourth Kingdom”:

Your hair will tell you
Of the soul of the forest,
Your teeth will reflect
The language of rocks,
Your body will cry
The hunger of animals.
You will be rescued from the shipwreck
Of red rivers:
Forget the cradle of light
And turn yourself into light.

(tr. John Nist)

And thus was our little band of writers carried safely and gratefully in the vessel of words, from hemisphere to hemisphere, poem to poem, story to story, to return home nourished and tired and eager for wherever the conversation may lead.



Alison Hawthorne Deming, Professor of Creative Writing and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair of Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona, is author of four poetry books, including Rope (Penguin 2009), and four books of nonfiction, including Writing the Sacred Into the Real and Zoologies (Milkweed 2014). She’s received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bayer Award in Science Writing and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her poems and prose have been widely anthologized, including in The Norton Book of Nature Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing.
Read poetry, an essay (“The Cheetah Run”), a guest editorial (“Ruin and Renewal”), and an interview with Alison Hawthorne Deming appearing in

Image of map of Brazil courtesy Shutterstock.

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